Thursday, June 10, 2010

Happy George A. Romero Month!

Ok, let's talk current events. I know, I should be talking about revisionist vampire movies but I'm finding them a bit more tedious than I expected so I've decided to make a change to the curriculum. Seeing as how it's June, making it the 42nd anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, 32nd of Dawn of the Dead, we're going to detour and take a look at how those films (and George A. Romero) have shaped our culture. Today specifically we're going to look at what the man himself has been up to. And while we're at it, why don't we see what his old pal Dario Argento's gotten up to. This is a bit of a cheat, I admit, starting at the end of such a prolific and influential artist's canon, but I've got to start somewhere haven't i? I'm in the middle of re-evaluating all of his films for a career-spanning retrospective, but until then, I'm going to have a go at his latest because it is the perfect companion piece to George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead. In fact it's worth pointing out that both men's films seemed to have aged identically, right down to their latest films working as career summations, marked drops in the quality of their craft, marked increases in the sympathy of unlikely characters and to cap it off neither film was given a wide release.

Survival of the Dead
by George A. Romero
By now the story barely needs rehashing. Who here doesn't by now how Romero's movies begin? There are zombies. They've taken over. If you've seen Diary of the Dead, you may remember the group of soldiers who robbed the students about two thirds of the way through the movie. They've defected from what remains of the US Army and now need a place to hold up and wait out this whole undead thing. Enter Patrick O'Flynn. One night the soldiers kill off a bunch of redneck hunters and among their belongings find a nameless boy who has the answer to their safety woes. He's seen an add where one Patrick O'Flynn offers to help strangers get to safety on Plum Island, Delaware. The leader of the group, simply called Sarge (a problem I'll address in a moment), can't think of a good enough reason not to go even if he hates the idea of doing what the impetuous kid thinks is a good idea. I can't blame him, he's the kind of prick you meet in high school who makes it seem like graduation's never going to come. So, with some trepidation, they head to Delaware.

But this wouldn't be a Romero film if everything was just as sunny as they're told it'll be. Plum Island is host to a feud between two Irish ranching clans. When the zombies came to their small island, Patrick O'Flynn, the head of the O'Flynn family, believed in putting them down before they could get up again. This caused great strife for the religious Muldoons, the other family on the island. Shamus, the family's patriarch, believed in keeping them around to see if maybe there wasn't some hope for them, some way to bring them back to life. They fought until the one side couldn't stand the other living on the island and as Muldoon had more guns, O'Flynn was put on a boat to the mainland. He's been robbing passersby and sending them to the island in the three months since his departure. And things only get worse for them there as the Muldoons have shot everyone O'Flynn has sent over, believing them to be looters. So, after a brief squabble over money (the soldiers arrive in an armored car) Sarge agrees to take O'Flynn back to his home. Things are worse than O'Flynn had hoped. Just about everyone's died and become a zombie and the Muldoons are almost outnumbered. Muldoon and his ranch hand Chuck are having a hard time managing them all and have taken mostly to shooting them these days. Muldoon's experiments consist of putting zombies in a pen with an animal in the hopes that they'll take a dietary interest in them. If they start eating horses, that's one more species to hunt instead of people. This, Muldoon reasons, will lead to co-existing with their undead loved-ones.
As you may have guessed the Muldoons aren't too happy to see O'Flynn, with or without his armed escort and a few of them open fire the minute they spot them, killing Kenny and wounding Sarge. As they recover from their attack, they get a visit from this movie's talking fox: Jane O'Flynn, Patrick's daughter, comes riding through on horseback. The catch: she's a zombie too. Yep, take a second, think about it. If you're not entirely unwilling to continue, I can't say I blame you but I'm a Romero-ite through and through so onward I plunged. Plus I'd driven an hour to see Survival of the Dead and wasn't about to leave early. Anyway, she's Muldoon's ace in the hole. If Jane, the high-functioning zombie, can ride her horse around the island all day, then surely she can be trained to eat the horse instead of the rest of the Muldoon clan. Chuck's not wild about the plan as he and Jane used to fancy each other. Patrick isn't wild about it as Muldoon's not only keeping his dead daughter alive but using her as a guinea pig. By nightfall everyone's rarin' to shoot out their differences.

Survival of the Dead is very nearly a failure, albeit an honorable one. Romero's once tight direction is lackluster for most of the film, the performances range from tolerable to risible and the dialogue is written almost entirely in out-of-date idioms. Take the silly nicknames of the characters or the weirdly non-existent slang that the nameless boy uses. It smacks of someone out of touch trying to stay in touch, but has chosen instead to just invent something new to be in touch with. It's all a little distressing. The fault however that no one has been able to forgive is that the film is just not scary. In fact if I weren't so firmly in Romero's corner I'd probably have found nothing to like about the film. My girlfriend, who didn't have nearly the history I have with Romero, really didn't like it to the point of being made physically ill. I can't blame her or anyone else who walked away with a bad taste in their mouths because speaking frankly it isn't a great film. There are more gambles that don't pay off than in any of his other movies. First off is the decision to make half of Survival a western. Taking inspiration from William Wyler's The Big Country (though there's plenty of Anthony Mann's The Furies, John Ford's The Quiet Man and Edward Dein's Curse of the Undead to be found here), Romero turns the focus not on man V. zombie but clan V. clan. This more or less sold me because I'm a huge fan of revisionist westerns and even though the climax lacks any kind of tension or pacing, I still found myself enjoying the aspects of the film that linked it to the western genre most of all....with the exception of giving national guardsman six shooters. That was just silly.

I'll say this, there are moments here that rank as among the best in Romero's four decades of filmmaking. Despite a cast of largely mediocre actors, Romero manages to draw out a good deal of pathos for people we barely know. Kenneth Welsh and Richard Fitzpatrick as messers Muldoon and O'Flynn make for decent enough Western cyphers and they wind up with some of the best moments in the film. Take for instance their introductions. The O'Flynn's knock on someone's door because they know they're harbouring zombies upstairs and they need to sort them out. The misses has no intention of going quietly and a struggle ensues. Just before Patrick O'Flynn can waste her undead children, Shamus and his crew show up to exile O'Flynn. Despite being a riff on the siege on the apartment block in Dawn of the Dead, it's still a taut little scene that wouldn't feel out of place in any great western and is probably the best part of the film. It's all firmly downhill from there however as the main characters are introduced in the form of the soldiers. They're all pretty unlikable, have nothing to do with the blood-feud on the island which is the most interesting part of the film and give less than committed performances. When they're around we also get the least endearing part of the movie, the endless round of 'creative' zombie KOs. From the sausage fork to the flare to the fire extinguisher Romero finds new ways of killing and thus taking the fright and fun out of his once terrifying creation.
Finally the one thing I'd like to say in Romero's favour is that there is a love story nestled deep in this movie that I think deserved much more attention than it got. Chuck and Jane's impossibly unrequited romance was to me, a stroke of genius and really captured the kind of longing that make Westerns memorable beyond the gun-play and nationalistic fervour. It's got to say something about either Romero's direction or Joris Jarsky's performance that Chuck's story was instantly something I sympathized with and he was easily my favourite character. Unfortunately he and Jane's love story gets maybe fifteen minutes of screentime and that just isn't enough with Alan Van Sprang and his friends sucking all the believability and empathy out of the film. I love George A. Romero and have seen everything he's made and will continue to do so as long as I can. I just wish that he'd embrace his potential and make something truly worthy of the man who redefined horror movies. Anyone who saw Dario Argento's latest film was probably thinking the same thing but I think at the very least Giallo serves as a kind of self-contained tribute to the one-time giant. This may be because unlike Romero, Argento had a little help writing the screenplay and if I don't miss my guess Jim Agnew and Sean Keller are pretty big fans.

by Dario Argento
In the first of many references to Argento's previous work which I'll address in full below, pretty twentysomething Keiko is followed home by a madman. She's drugged, kidnapped, brought to a dank basement and tortured. It comes as no surprise when the next character we meet, Celine, a model, falls into his clutches mere days later when her sister Linda comes to town to visit. As there's no evidence of a struggle, the police haven't much to go on. Elsa visits exiled American detective Enzo Avolfi and spends a day pleading for his full attention to the point of pretty severely invading his privacy. Finally he agrees to help her by calling in every favour he's accrued in his time working in Italy. When another of the man's victims shows up on the steps of a convent, they realize the time they have left to save Celine is short indeed.

The story is almost disarmingly uncomplicated, which is not really how a traditional giallo should be. There aren't fifty-eight thousand plot twists or even a surprise ending but I have to say that such simplicity is best for the paired-down style Argento has cultivated in recent years. His approach to design and lighting has become almost minimalist compared to his early work and having seen the trouble he's gotten himself into lately trying to do more than he can (Pelts, The Mother of Tears) I'm kinda glad that Agnew and Keller gave him something simple to work on. Mother of Tears was so fucking complicated, an orgy of useless minor characters and monkeys and flying overweight ghosts and magic fire and all kinds of other confusing shit, that not only do we not know anything about the character who saves the day but we (me) don't particularly care anymore. Giallo: simple as can be. Girl goes missing, sister tries to find her before it's too late. This also gave the writers ample opportunity to pay homage to Argento's heyday. In Giallo, all of Dario's ghosts have come out to play. We have women at the opera (Opera), a girl tirelessly flagging a cab in the rain (Suspiria), Roman architecture (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage), Enzo himself seems a reference to Inferno's New York setting, Enzo's friend at public records has posters for Sergio Leone films on his walls (he and Argento came up with the idea for Once Upon A Time In The West, along with Bernardo Bertolucci), Celine's wardrobe seems culled from any number of Argento's 70s films and a lovely ornate bronze spiral staircase adorns the middle of a chic hotel room. What Argento film hasn't had a picturesque staircase near a murder?

That said the movie is a bit all over the place. The direction is a little listless and Emmanuelle Seigner's Linda goes from bored to hystrionic in little to no time at all. I love Emmanuelle Seigner but Argento, unlike her husband Roman Polanski, doesn't quite know how to use her. Interestingly she and Adrien Brody are both Polanski graduates. Coincidence? Probably. I like Adrien Brody and he does fine as Avolfi it's just more than a little jarring to see him in a film like this. It's hard not to go to bat for him knowing he produced the film and plays a very special guest role on top of playing the dogged inspector. He has a number of nice little touches like his reaction when the first found victim starts breathing again. It's priceless. Then there's the line of questioning that follows: “Who discovered the body?” “The mother superior.” “…christ.” Brody's presence alone kinda makes the film work for me even if Argento hadn't long ago forgotten how to make a compelling movie. I'd be lying if I said I didn't go way out of my way to enjoy Giallo even when it didn't bother asking me to. I really wanted to like it because I really hated The Mother of Tears and wanted the man who made The Cat O' Nine Tails and Inferno to have something decent under his belt after a decade of misses and near-misses. I wanted him to be able to retire with something that really made a showing of his considerable talent and many, many years making films. To my mind this is that film or anyway it's the most we could ask of him. He'll be 70 in September of 2010 and all things considered I think Giallo, an imperfect film, is still better than a lot of his post-Inferno output and has enough to recommend it, including a genuine emotional core and perhaps the biggest surprise that any Argento film has to offer: realism. That, in a film featuring a killer with jaundiced yellow skin, is really something.
So neither Romero nor Argento has quite given his all this time around. Though their best years are probably behind them, they've both changed horror cinema as we know it. An interesting rumour has started to circulate about Romero remaking Deep Red. If any of Argento's 70s films needed a revamping, it's Deep Red and I can think of nothing quite so touching as these two titans bonding over their mutual love of each other's work. But it is just a rumour, after all. Anyway, neither Giallo nor Survival of the Dead is as good as they ought to be, but I think asking for too much more is a touch unreasonable. What I think we can learn from this is that they have left us a decidely uneven but fascinating body of work, many of which deserve repeat viewing and adoration. Night of the Living Dead, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat 'O Nine Tails, The Crazies, Four Flies On Grey Velvet, Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead and Inferno are tremendous movies, lifetime-pass stuff, to quote Nathan Rabin. Whatever they decide to do in future, I'll be there with a big bag of empathy and the knowledge that at least they're having fun.

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